Why Are Motion-Smoothing Televisions So Terrible For Anime?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jon asks:

I recently upgraded my TV to a new OLED flatscreen from LG, and I couldn't understand why the anime I watched looked so blurry. After a little research online, I found out there is a setting called "TruMotion" that was the culprit and when I turned it off my viewing experience improved significantly. Could you explain what this "TruMotion" setting is and why it seems to have such a dramatic effect on anime compared to other movies/shows?

What you are seeing is a standard feature on almost all new TVs these days. It's a technology known as "motion interpolation," but every TV manufacturer has their own trademarked name for it: Sony calls it MotionFlow; Samsung calls it Auto Motion Plus; Sharp calls it AquoMotion; Toshiba calls it ClearScan; Vizio calls it Smooth Motion; and LG calls it TruMotion. I call it a crime against motion pictures.

Motion interpolation is a technology that analyzes each of the 24 (or 30) frames of video that appear every second, and attempts to "smooth out" the motion by generating new frames to go in between the existing ones, effectively doubling or tripling the frame rate. (The human eye has a sample rate of roughly 60-80 times per second, so beyond that, there's not much perceptible difference.) The resulting picture is, arguably, more lifelike than plain 24 fps (frames per second), which occasionally exhibits a "juddering" look when something moves very fast. Panning shots especially look much clearer.

That all sounds wonderful, but there are two major problems with this. The first is that all of us have been trained, through every film and TV show we've ever watched, to perceive the "look" of 24 fps -- which has been used for nearly all movies and high budget TV shows -- to look good, while 30 fps was used for cheaper productions like soap operas, low-end sitcoms, news, local programming and porno. While that common opinion is somewhat subjective, there's some scientific basis to it as well: at the lower frame rate, our eye perceives the image differently: different details stand out to us, and some of those are details that we were simply not meant to see.

Some people really like the look of high frame rates. So far, only four movies have been released at high frame rates, and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy were three of them. (Ang Lee's recent box office bomb, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was the other.) There are only a handful of theaters that can play these films at their full 48 fps frame rates, so almost nobody saw them in this format. Many of those that did reportedly hated how it looked: the image seemed flat, sets looked cheap and flimsy, and suddenly every seam of the film started to show. They called the look of higher frame rates the "soap opera effect," because suddenly everything looked like a cheap soap opera.

Motion interpolation is a way of artifically making EVERYTHING high frame rate. Even when this works, it usually looks terrible. Computer-generated extra motion is not real, and makes everything that moves look artifical and supernaturally smooth. New movies look alien and flat. Old movies look REALLY cheesy. But the TV manufacturers, trying to sell televisions based on what are now boring incremental upgrades, needed a marketing angle. And so, this feature is turned on by default on nearly every new television being sold.

When it doesn't work right, the results are just disastrous. I've seen videos where the motion stutters noticeably at one-second intervals -- which is incredibly distracting. Anime is one of those things that motion interpolation never seems to work right on. Since the interpolator is examining the difference between frames, the fact that anime uses limited animation and often only moves at 6-8 frames per second can completely throw it off. Most of the interpolators just get confused, and blur whatever's happening, thinking it's smoothing the picture out.

I'm told that motion interpolation can be a nice thing on certain video games, and perhaps sports. I don't think I would use it, but to each their own. However, most people that buy a TV never even think to check the settings, so it just stays on all the time. Everything that ever gets played on that TV ends up looking artificially smooth and, to many people, cheap and terrible. I implore people to turn it off. If I'm at a bar or restaurant and there's a television on the wall with motion smoothing is turned on, I end up annoyed for the entire evening.

I'm not alone. A couple of years ago there was a petition trying to force manufacturers to stop turning it on by default. The petition was started by a New York-based cinematographer, who explained that his entire profession is dedicated to tirelessly making shots look beautiful, and motion interpolation was ruining the work. Needless to say this topic was too nerdy to get people excited and this never went anywhere.

As long as we're talking about useless TV features, sharpness is also a setting that just needs to die. It's a relic from the old analog video days that adds an artificial sharpness filter to everything, bringing out detail -- and compression artifacts -- that were formerly invisible and never meant to be seen. It can take a perfect looking Blu-ray and make it look like a bad rip from a pirate streaming site. Most TVs come from the factory with this setting at 50%. Digital video is already sharp, it doesn't ever need sharpening. It should always be at 0.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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